chocolate bar

Chocolate: the industry’s hidden truth (and the easy stuff we can do to still enjoy it)

by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

If you spend four minutes with my children, you will know that Halloween is in 29 days. This is because they are children, and who wouldn’t love a holiday that involves dressing up like beloved characters, animals, or icons and collecting candy in a bag? Dress up plus sweets? Sign me up, they say.

Well, despite how I feel about the holiday (ahem—keeping a jar of candy each per kid; giving the rest away while we recover for the next three days), it’s a fun way to get out in the community, enjoy the fall, and create family memories. I just go with it.

The Intellectual Grownup

But I’m gonna pull back the curtain behind the wizard here for this month’s Intellectual Grownup post, and it’s one of those inconvenient truths that I wish we could ignore. But we can’t. Because friends, it’s real, it’s rampant, and not enough well-meaning families know about the reality behind their shiny-foiled wrappers.

The far majority of chocolate is in our stores because of forced child labor. And unless we tell the guilty companies that this isn’t okay, this will keep happening.

So this means that the majority of the chocolate candy in your kids’ Halloween bag will be because of child labor, and often child slavery. But this also means there’s a simple but powerful thing you can do as a family to not contribute to the epidemic issue. More on that at the end.

Photo from Food Empowerment Project

In 2001, various news sources revealed that children were being used as slaves or cheap labor in West African cocoa farms, where the majority of the world’s cocoa is birthed. Lawmakers in the U.S. tried to enact laws to require change, but the farthest they got was a voluntary protocol (the Harken-Engel Protocol, to be exact), signed by heads of major chocolate companies, to ask for the stop of child labor “as a matter of urgency.”

Well, this pretty-please request was more or less ignored, and more than ten years later, there are still over a million children working on cocoa farms with little more than the torn clothes on their backs. Their hands and faces are often sliced with machete scars, evidence of the main tool they use to cut down the cocoa from trees after shimmying up the trunk (and also used to split open the cocoa pod).

Child slavery is used in the chocolate industry. Don't turn a blind eye.
Photo from Mind This

Most of the children are also required to spray hazardous chemicals on the crops, where they ingest it into their lungs, and they are unable to attend school while they work, which is in violation of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Most of these children can’t read or write, they subsist on corn paste and bananas, and needless to say, they have never tasted the chocolate they help produce for our own families.

According to the website Grist, a 2011 Tulane University study found a “projected total of 819,921 children in Ivory Coast and 997,357 children in Ghana worked on cocoa-related activities” in 2007-2008.

The ILO calls the cocoa industry the worst form of child labor today. And these farms, mostly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, exist because of brands like Hershey, Nestle, Mars, and Cadbury—they all purchase cocoa from these farms, are all aware of their practices, and as of today, have chosen to do little about it.

What can we do?

Here’s the deal—as well-intentioned families who hold the majority of the world’s money (and if you can read English and are reading this blog, you’re probably in this demographic), we hold an incredible amount of power in our wallets. We simply need to put our dollars where our hearts beat and NOT BUY THIS CHOCOLATE.

I don’t use all-caps often. But I am here, because you guys, it doesn’t take much for us to make a massive dent in this worldwide catastrophe.

Chocolate is not an essential commodity for survival, so we can each absolutely afford brands that practice ethical standards from the crop to the store. It’s just a matter of knowing what those are.

What’s up with the Fair Trade label?

fair trade logos

I wrote about this already in my post about the coffee industry, and the same thing applies to chocolate. The main thing to know is that the “Fair Trade” label means the farmer was paid a fair price for his or her product, and in buying this chocolate, you as a consumer aren’t willingly participating in exploitation. But unfortunately, a farmer has to pay for this certification, and at thousands of dollars, many can’t afford this.

Look for a short supply chain

The best option is to look for the shortest supply chain possible, which means there are few steps between the farmer and the grocery aisle. Look for verbiage like “Direct Trade” and “Bean to Bar.” These chocolatiers often travel directly to the farms, develop a relationship with the farmers, and therefore both get the top-tiered choice in beans and are given a reasonable price—which directly goes to farm operations.

So, is that it?

Not quite. Also keep in mind that those major chocolate brands also pump their candies full of GMOs, fake emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and other chemicals—at least in the U.S. I can’t speak for every country, of course, but in my travels, I can attest that chocolate tastes better outside of America. In fact, certain well-known chocolates in the U.S. must be labeled “chocolate candy” in other countries, because well, it’s not considered real chocolate elsewhere.


Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label to better ensure your chocolate isn’t icky. (Also, organic chocolate is almost exclusively grown in Central and South America, where slavery isn’t an issue.)

The broken chocolate industry, and how we can still enjoy it. So important right before the major holidays.

I guess this means we should cancel trick-or-treating and eat organic apples while watching depressing documentaries, eh?

I’m a realist, and I get that many of you still want to take your kids trick-or-treating (or rather, your kids would be heartbroken to ban the holiday). Here’s what we can do.

1. Tell your kids the truth.

You don’t need to go into graphic detail, but I think it’s perfectly legit to tell your kids that as a family, you can’t, in good conscience, buy mainstream chocolate because those companies use kids just like them to work really hard for almost no money, that they often get hurt, and that they can’t go to school because of chocolate.

Let’s change the status quo by impassioning their generation to practice ethical buying now.

2. Don’t buy chocolate from mainstream brands.

Choose to no longer buy chocolate from companies like Nestle, Hershey, Mars, and Cadbury, so that they get the message that we are NOT okay with forced child labor.

3. Buy from awesome companies.

There are more and more chocolatiers that are selling ethically-made chocolate—let’s support them. Yes, it costs more. So we buy less. It’s a small price to pay for doing right.

Good Halloween treats

equal exchange
Chocolate minis from Equal Exchange (I especially LOVE their Halloween Kit!)

divine chocolate
Divine milk chocolate and dark chocolate mini pieces (they’re the first farmer-owned chocolate company in the world!)

trick or treat chocolate
Trick or Treat chocolates by Sweet Earth

endangered species halloween chocolate
Halloween treats from Endangered Species Chocolate

chocolate square
SweetRiot’s chocolate squares

Halloween Orange Bites
Sjaak’s chocolate & peanut butter bites

YumEarth Organic Lollipops
YummyEarth Organic Lollipops (not chocolate)  | on Amazon

Chocolate doesn’t end on Halloween, of course—here’s a list of reputable chocolatiers for all your chocolate snacking, drinking, and baking needs.

Great chocolate companies

You may not feel rich, but compared to the rest of the world, you probably are. Really really. And you can make a major difference in the world simply by directing your money to the right sources. We’re at the beginning of the chocolate-heavy holiday season… we have plenty of time to purchase well. Please join my family.

For further reading, my friend Kristen Howerton has done a fabulous job going in to more detail of the chocolate slavery issue.

The documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate is currently available on YouTube for free, and while it’s not graphic, it might be emotionally disturbing for kids. Watch first before showing your children, but make a point to watch it yourself—it’s haunting.

Alright, it’s your turn to add to this post—what are your favorite ethical chocolate companies? Please share in the comments below. Also share your ideas on how to make Halloween a more ethical holiday for our kids.

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  1. Slavery is still an issue in Central and South America. Chocolate companies usually don’t tell you what country their cocoa is coming from, but if they do you can see how big of a problem slavery is in that country by using this report put out by the US Department of State:

  2. Thank you for this impactful post. It definitely hit me as a call to change my own habits, as it clearly has for others as well. I linked to it in my second blog post ever the other day and I’ll definitely be referring to your helpful list of ethical chocolate companies when I do my Halloween purchasing very soon.

  3. avatar
    Suzanne L. says:

    I haven’t looked into Halloween-size chocolate bars yet (I may go with something non-chocolate after this), but my favorite regular bars are by Chocolove (which seems to be responsible, though their explanation seemed a bit vagueo me) and Seattle Chocolates, which claims to be fair trade.

  4. Thank you for this post. I was not unaware of it as I had read similar posts at Rage Against the Minivan in years past, and I usually buy Green and Black’s chocolate bars for myself, but it’s one of those issues I’m ashamed to say I try not to think about when my kids ask for Hershey’s. We’re getting better about our food choices, one thing at a time, so I thank you for making me think about this again and inspiring me to talk to my kids about it.

  5. Oh my goodness, this breaks my heart. I had no idea! Thank you for sharing this information. We live just a couple blocks from the Theo Chocolate Factory in Seattle! We’ll make sure to buy our sweet treats from them from now on! xo

  6. Wow. I had heard about this a while back and am now ready to do something about it. What about cocoa powder? Baker’s unsweetened chocolate? Central Market organic chocolate bars? I love Enjoy Life’s chips and chunks! I have a soy allergy so the above mentioned brands are soy free. I was so excited to find the Central Market organic bars were soy free. So now, I need to find chocolate that is fair trade AND soy free. Anyone have suggestions?

  7. I just wanted to say what an excellent article this is! I found it through a link by Do a Little Good, another social good blog I follow. The fact that so many businesses are this ignorant to where they are sourcing their goods drives me mad. I just did a post on the palm oil industry and it angered me but not as much as this one when they use little children as slave labor. What is so cool is that by using our voice like this to call out injustice, change happens. I just got a letter from General Mills about their palm oil plans for the future. Look how many people tweeted and shared this post. Congratulations on making a difference! I look forward to following your blog! :) nicole

  8. Hi Tish,

    Do you know if Sweet Moose is an okay brand? It says that it’s organic fair trade, and it is certified organic, but I’m not seeing the Fair Trade label on it. Can you shed some light on this?

  9. Does anyone know about UTZ Certified products? Are they like Fairtrade? Ikea’s chocolate is UTZ Certified.

  10. Um, I’m sorry, but this isn’t quite accurate. My dad has been at the fore-front of the chocolate industry for almost 30 years. He has spent more time out of the country than in, visiting the suppliers, working with them, and their governments, to ensure better crops raised in a better way. He has gone down to countless South American farms, with USAID, to work with the growers.

    My dad works with smaller growers, teaching them how to grow a better cacao crop, teaching them what they need to do to get a better flavor, a higher quality bean. And if they do those things, the company he works for contracts to buy from them. One of the requirements is no pesticides, and I doubt USAID would be okay with child labor.

    My dad works for Mars, and while the quality of their nugat/carmel has changed recently, the quality of their chocolate has not.

  11. Wow, I had no idea, thank you for educating me. I haven’t purchased chocolate from a major company in years because I just didn’t like the taste and prefer to buy local-made goods anyway (which, living in Northern California, isn’t hard to do. ) I will be a more informed shopper from now on!

  12. If you have a phone that uses apps, you can go to and download an app for you phone. When you shop, you can scan the products and see how they rate for using slaves for production. A = no slaves D = way too many. A friend of mine found that Hanes does not use slaves and their product is only slightly more expensive than what they were buying. Easy switch.

  13. avatar
    Kellie Budge says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this post. This has been weighing heavy on my mind this Halloween season and you’ve pointed out some great alternatives!

  14. Do you have any resources or recommendations for buying fair trade toys?

  15. A small, ethical chocolate company recently came to my attention. At Eating Evolved, they produce an assortment of chocolate products that are Fairtrade, non-GMO, soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, and refined sugar-free! Some of their products do contain nuts.

  16. I didn’t have time to read throw every post… how about Fearless chocolate?

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